California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office says the state’s embattled adult education system needs a dedicated and permanent funding stream that can’t be appropriated for other school programs when the state budget goes south.
Restructuring California’s Adult Education System calls for the state Legislature to restore adult education as a categorical program. Adult Ed advocates lauded the proposal, even though it relies on funding that is speculative and requires a commitment from legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown that they have so far not shown.
Adult schools are an important strand in the state’s safety net, offering community-based classes to some of the state’s neediest adults, ranging from the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly to ex-offenders reentering society, immigrants trying to learn English and become citizens, and high school dropouts seeking to earn their GEDs.
Until the 2008-09 academic year, adult education was funded through one of the dozens of categorical programs that could be used only for their stated purpose. But as part of the February 2009 state budget plan, legislators approved what’s known as “categorical flex,” giving school districts the authority to use funds from 40 categorical programs, including adult education, for any educational purpose.
The LAO report says that move signaled “adult schools’ lower priority within the K-12 system.” Since then, local school boards have funneled as much as 70 percent of statewide adult ed funds to support K-12 programs, according to Chris Nelson, president of the California Council for Adult Education.
At least 35 programs have shut down as a result, and many of the 300 remaining programs are operating on shoestring budgets. Altogether, the LAO estimates that in 2011-12, the state and federal governments spent about $400 million on district-run adult schools, down from $854 million before flex started.
Many community colleges also offer adult education classes, spending about $1.7 billion last year, according to the LAO, but the colleges take that money from their regular state funding and not from separate categorical accounts.
Categorical flex is due to expire at the end of the 2014-15 school year, and the LAO is recommending that starting in 2015-16 adult education be restored as a categorical program with a dedicated funding stream. The program is a good candidate for restoration of funds, said Paul Steenhausen, who wrote the LAO report, because it reaches a distinct, underserved population.
“Adult education is a different animal,” Steenhausen said. Because it doesn’t serve K-12 students, it is “fundamentally different from other categoricals.”
However, many observers believe that the current level of flexible funding will continue beyond 2014-15 unless Gov. Brown convinces the Legislature to reconfigure the school finance system using a weighted student formula (WSF). Under this approach, money would follow the student, so schools enrolling students with greater needs, such as English learners and those from low-income families, would receive more funds. When Gov. Brown first proposed WSF last January, he didn’t support separate funding for adult education, leading advocates to oppose it.
Even the recent passage of Proposition 30, which increases funding to schools through a combination of a small sales tax increase and higher income taxes on the wealthiest Californians, has not revived support for adult education, according to Nelson.
“We’re still hearing that programs are being threatened with being cut more,” Nelson said. “I have not heard of anybody who has said they’re going to get an increase because of Prop. 30.”
Instead, Nelson said he believes that school districts will be under pressure to use increased revenues to provide raises for teachers. “We’re all fighting for every little dollar, and it’s unfortunate how this has played out – one program against another.”
Nelson described the situation in Sonoma County, which had 11 adult education schools a few years ago, but has only one remaining program, in Petaluma. That program is being inundated by prospective students from all over the county. Nelson expects that Petaluma, which doesn’t have the capacity to serve so many people, will soon have to restrict its program to city residents.
One reason adult education may lack support from some legislators is the program’s uneven distribution across the state. Adult ed schools are more common in urban than rural communities.
The LAO report addresses this issue. The LAO is predicting that as the economy improves, the state will soon be receiving more funds that must be spent on K-14 education. The report recommends that some of this new money should be allocated to adult education based on regional needs and the ability of districts, colleges and local businesses to work as a team to avoid duplication of services and provide smooth pathways for students to jobs and college. The LAO also recommends that funding be allocated based on student outcomes – such as how many successfully complete courses – the way federal funds are now distributed.
But, finally, “the bigger issue is how is adult ed going to get funded,” Nelson said. “The LAO does recommend designated funding for adult ed, and that’s very key.”